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Forty-Years Later: A Personal Reflection on Black and Belonging in Middle School

I had the pleasure of spending four weeks with my grandson Kal-EL this summer. I can’t believe that he’s already eleven years old and has started middle school this year. Where has the time gone? As it turns out, middle school represented major life transitions for both my husband (the start of mandatory busing for Boston Public Schools), and for myself (moving from Chicago to Massachusetts).

In retrospect, I realize my recollections of middle school are largely focused on feeling isolated from most of my peers while simultaneously being humiliated and dismissed as a capable student by my teachers. As a Black student, I was different, and there was no such thing as Diversity, Equity or Inclusion to help students like me feel welcome or seen, back in the mid-1970's. It’s been over 40 years, and I know that my grandson will have a different (social, emotional and academic) middle school experience than I did because the context in which he is being educated is different. His experience is much more positive and encouraging. This belief has inspired me to share some of what I experienced in middle school as I briefly touch on the current research on middle school transitions, belonging, and academic achievement for Black and Brown students.

For most students, middle school represents a phase of notable physical, emotional, and social adjustments frequently leading to heightened levels of stress and anxiety. In my case, my anxiety and stress started just before I started middle school. My family moved from Chicago to Massachusetts in the mid-1970s, about a month before the start of the new school year. The move to Massachusetts was difficult for me because everything I initially experienced in Massachusetts felt foreign and hostile. At the start of middle school, my world felt upside down. I was living in a new state, in an affluent community that was predominately white, and with very few Black families like mine.

Community and School Environments are Linked

The connection between schools and communities is frequently emphasized. Indeed, numerous sociologists perceive schools as integral parts of the communities that establish them, and argue that a community's principles, concepts, standards, and convictions are upheld by the school as a social establishment. Community and school practices, policies, and values frequently complement and strengthen one another. Due to this intimate association, if students do not feel secure and/or accepted in the communities where their schools are situated, it can pose challenges for them to completely engage in or embrace a sense of belonging within the school community.

Unfortunately, for my family, the racism started immediately after we moved into our new community. Everywhere we went in our community, people stared and sometimes pointed at us. When my sisters and I were out without adults, we were often stopped by adult strangers asking us why we were in the neighborhood or where we lived. On a few occasions, as it was getting dark outside – people would drive by us yelling out the “N” word as they threw soda bottles or beer cans at us. I can remember feeling so scared. Here we were in this beautiful supposedly “progressive” community with some of the best schools in the state according to my mom, and every message we received from the community and the schools was “you don’t belong here.”

Starting Middle School

The moment I stepped on school grounds, I was overwhelmed because my classmates, teachers and even the other Black students in the school were curious about me and my sister. I quickly learned that the other Black students in the school were part of a voluntary bussing program where they were bussed to the school from Boston. The other Black students were also highly suspicious of me along with everyone else at school. To my horror, I eventually found out that there were no other Black students in the school that were not a part of the Boston bussing program. People were surprised and/or outraged to learn that my younger sister and I lived in the school community, and throughout the school year, we were constantly peppered with questions like “Why do you live here?” and sometimes inappropriate questions like “How much money do your parents make?”

Things got much more difficult for me when I discovered I was the only Black girl in the 7th grade middle school class. There were two Black boys in the 7th grade class, but unfortunately, we never had any classes together. Overtime, I noticed that the school community seemed to tolerate rather than embrace the bussed-in Black students. Black students could not participate in afterschool sports or clubs because their school bus left school thirty minutes after the official school day ended. Also, there didn’t seem to be any class or school activities to help foster inclusion or belonging between, or amongst any students, let alone middle school students. In this October 9, 2019, Edutopia article, educator Shana White, describes her five-step exercise on identity and belonging that helps middle school students appreciate differences—in themselves, and in their peers. I would have loved to have started my middle school experience with a caring teacher like Ms. White, but it was a different time, and it was far from my experience.

Mandatory Meeting with the Principal

On my first day of middle school, I remember having to meet with the principal before I could attend any of my classes (I later discovered that this was not standard practice). I was terrified when I learned about the meeting from my homeroom teacher. Another teacher had just helped me find my classroom after I took my younger sister to her classroom. I remember as I walked into the classroom, all conversation stopped, my classmates stared at me, and before I could approach and introduce myself to the teacher, she looked at me and said something like “What are you doing here? The principal needs to talk to you.” She then escorted me out of the class to the principal’s office without saying another word to me, not even hello. The principal had me take a seat in his office while he and my teacher stood over me. The principal did the questioning. The first question he asked was if I was a “troublemaker,” and I told him “No,” and he looked at my teacher and said, “We’ll see,” and she nodded in agreement. He said something about me having to leave my “ghetto ways” in Chicago because this was a good school, a good community, and he would not tolerate it.

I remember wondering if I had said or done something to make him think I was a bad person, or if someone had told him I had “ghetto ways,” whatever that meant. The meeting continued with him asking me questions about my parents, our family, and our current living situation. This is where the “How much money do your parents make?” question came up. When I told him I had no idea, he asked me if we were on “welfare” and if I had ever used food stamps. I was both shocked and frightened by his questions, but I could recognize prejudice. He was the principal, so I respectfully looked him in the eyes, tried to be polite, and told him he needed to speak with my parents about his questions and concerns. He told my teacher he was surprised I wasn’t afraid to look him in the eyes because most students looked at the floor when they came into his office.

After the principal concluded his questioning, my teacher silently escorted me back to our homeroom but not before the principal mentioned that they should check in later. I was nervous the whole day thinking that I was in trouble but didn’t know why. It was a horrible experience, so much so that I can’t remember anything else that happened during the rest of that school day. I was physically in school that day, but I was mentally absent. A few days later after I made my first friend at school, she told me that I started crying at the end of homeroom and refused to leave the classroom. The school nurse came, and I spent the rest of the day in her office. In hindsight, I am now sure that I was frozen in fear. My mom picked us up from school because I don’t think I could have gotten my sister and myself home that day.

Final Reflections

An August 6, 2020, Education Trust article titled: “Students of Color Aren’t Broken; Systems, Practices & Policies Are,” stated that “without equity-focused policies, the right mindset, and appropriate responses, educator biases (whether implicit or explicit) often unfairly and unjustly marginalize some students. Many students of color and students from low-income backgrounds are seen as “broken” or in need of “fixing,” which undermines their excellence and results in real and harmful consequences.” The moment I stepped foot on the school grounds that first day of middle school, everyone treated me as if I was broken, or even dangerous, and for a short time that year, I was – that is until my mother reminded me through unconditional love, encouragement and support who I was, and most important, what I was capable of academically. I had always been a good student.

Upon reflecting on my early days in middle school, I frequently imagine what could have helped me, and consistently arrive at the same conclusions. Individuals in positions of power within the school community who utilize their authority to harm or humiliate "minoritized" students are misusing their power and engaging in abusive behavior. Hatred is a destructive force, particularly for students who are the targets of such animosity. Furthermore, the mere presence of Black students, such as those who were voluntarily bussed from Boston, did not automatically create a beneficial diverse learning environment. A beneficial diverse learning environment is established when all members of the school community - students, teachers, and administrators alike - feel acknowledged as individuals of worth, are treated with respect, and are valued as important members of the school community.

I recently spoke with my daughter to get an update on my grandson Kal-EL’s middle school experience. He lives in Atlanta and started school during the first week in August - he’s been in school almost two months now. So far Kal-EL is having a terrific middle school experience. He’s surrounded with a supportive group of friends, while his teachers both expect and hold him to high expectations, resulting in academic challenges that he is excelling at. It’s still early in the school year, but I'll take these dynamics as” wins” in terms of Kal-EL's growing experience of belonging and academic success in middle school thus far.

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